The event was a Wall Street gala that raised millions of dollars for homeless veterans in New York City.
Kid Rock sang a ballad about helplessness, frustration and loss. On cue, several hundred soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines strode into position around him. The black-tie crowd rose to its feet and cheered.
"The servicemen and women were regarded as heroes," said David Saltzman, who organized the spring fundraiser.
A senior military officer at the gala, also attended by the Joint Chiefs then-chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, saw the troops' role differently.
"They were rolled out like some sort of orphan kid," the officer wrote in an email. "I'm sure the organizers meant well. I know they did. But it wasn't respect, really. It was pity."
The starkly conflicting impressions illustrate the uneasy relationship that has taken hold between the military and an often distant, sometimes adoring American public.
The troops are lavished with praise for their sacrifices. But the praise comes with a price, service members say. The public increasingly acts as if it feels sorry for those in uniform.
"We aren't victims at all," said Brig. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who commanded troops in Iraq and will soon leave for Afghanistan. "But it seems that the only way that some can be supportive is to cast us in the role of hapless souls."
The topic is a sensitive one for military leaders, who do not want to appear ungrateful or at odds with the public they serve. They also realize that the anger that returning troops faced in the latter years of the Vietnam War was far worse.
As a result, most of the conversations about pity take place quietly and privately among combat veterans. After his two sons returned from combat tours with the Marines, retired Col. Mark Cancian warned them that people outside the military would view their service from two perspectives.
Some would look at them with a sense of awe because they faced down insurgents and traveled to exotic places. Others would wonder whether there was an "angry, violent veteran beneath the surface," said Cancian, who fought in Iraq and returned to a senior government job in Washington.
"When you talk about your service, you need to counter the negative impressions," Cancian recalled telling his sons.
The military's unease springs, in part, from American indifference to the wars. Battlefield achievements are rarely singled out for praise by a country that has little familiarity with the military and sees little direct benefit from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"We, as a nation, no longer value military heroism in ways that were entirely common in World War II," said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Instead, praise from politicians and the public focuses largely on the depth of a service member's suffering. Troops are recognized for the number of tours they have endured, the number of friends they have lost or the extent of their injuries.
The heavy focus on sacrifice can feel a lot like pity. In August, when Afghan insurgents shot down a helicopter, killing 30 U.S. troops, Gen. James Mattis, who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, reacted stoically to the sudden outpouring of emotion and regret from the public.
"We grieve for our lost comrades and especially for their families, yet we also remember that the lads were doing what they wanted to be doing and knew what they were about," he told a reporter. "This loss will only make the rest of us more determined, something that may be difficult for those who aren't in the military to understand."
Collective guilt over the reception Vietnam veterans received has led both Republicans and Democrats to press the entertainment industry to do more to extol returning troops. Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Karl Rove, then a senior adviser to President George W. Bush, traveled to Hollywood to encourage film executives to highlight the heroism of U.S. armed forces.
Ten years later, first lady Michelle Obama followed in Rove's footsteps and exhorted Hollywood to make movies and television shows that will give the public a fuller understanding of military families. "I want the conversation to be different," Obama told film industry executives this summer. "This is about making sure that these families feel like everyone in the country understands their sacrifices, appreciates them, and that we're all doing our part to step up."
The private sector has tried to express thanks through big giveaways. As part of a nationwide fundraiser, Miller Brewing Co. encouraged customers to mail in bottle caps from their beers over the summer. The brewer promised to donate 10 cents for each cap to a fund that would buy ballgame and concert tickets for the troops.
The Applebee's restaurant chain thanked current and former service members last week by serving them 1 million free meals on Veterans Day.
To some soldiers, who are better-paid and -educated than many Americans, the charity can strike the wrong chord. The giveaways can seem like acts of atonement, designed to make up for many Americans' indifference to the wars and their reluctance to serve.
"Don't thank me for my service, don't give me 5 percent off my Starbucks, don't worry about yellow ribbons," Lt. Col. Michael Jason, a battalion commander at Fort Stewart, Ga., wrote on his Facebook page on Memorial Day. "Do me this one favor: tell your children that there is another calling out there. ... Talk to your kids about serving their country and their fellow citizens."